As the calendar creeps towards Friday, when the Celtics are set to face the owner of the best record in the NBA, the Milwaukee Bucks, for the first absolutely meaningful outing of basketball since March 10th in Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indiana, there have been flashes of good amongst stretches of not so good play so far in the two scrimmages.
It’s easy to overreact to these scrimmages. (Bol Bol has basically turned into the second coming of Hakeem Olajuwon, but taller, for all I know.) I mean, we haven’t seen the Celtics, or any NBA team, actually play against another team in over four months. It was a longer layoff than the normal end of the season to the start of the next season. It was like collectively, as fans of the NBA, we were getting by with saltine crackers and flavored water (with the exception of the five weeks of The Last Dance) for all this time until this past Wednesday when we finally got to taste some New York Strip Steaks again.
With that being said, I’ve gathered probably too many observations from the Celtics in just two scrimmages against the Thunder of Oklahoma City and the Suns of Phoenix.
Sure-fire Rotational Player Observations
Positives: Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Smart
Jaylen Brown has looked like he hasn’t skipped a beat. He was in his bag right away against the Thunder with a mid-post fadeaway over Chris Paul. He nailed a quick-hitting three from the right-wing, he made a hesitation move and pull-up on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and he did a solid job defensively. On the first possession of the Suns’ scrimmage, he raced down court, in control, and made a nice little push shot to set the tone. He blew by Rubio in transition. He made a three from the left corner that was so silky smooth. The release, the touch, the swish. Really what you love to see. He made a pair of in rhythm, step in threes from near the top of the key. He knocked down a fall away in the paint over Ayton after staying poised and keeping his pivot:
In the second quarter, he showed us a staple of his game: Dribbling with his right hand up the left side of the court in transition, he attacked the defender by crossing over to his left hand, got the bump and jumped and hung in the air while putting the basketball over his head and released the soft bank shot at the last moment for the and one. Later in the game, he also utilized his body control to finish with an extended lefty layup while drawing a foul. Overall, it was delightful watching Jaylen Brown score in a multitude of manners across the pair of scrimmages. He let the game come to him and made things look easy. I’m looking forward to seeing how he attacks the perimeter defenders on the Rockets and Bucks in the coming days.
Speaking of guys who let the game come to them, Gordon Hayward was back doing Gordon Hayward things. He did back-rim several pull-up shots over the course of both scrimmages, but they were all good, in rhythm shot attempts that he can make. At least it was encouraging that his stroke was consistently accurate, it was just that he used too much power at times. Hayward, sort of like the move that Jaylen was described doing in the paragraph above, did a classic move of his against the Thunder where he backed up his dribble to almost midcourt, let the screen get set, go left off of it, do a little hesitation dribble on the big man, get downhill and hang in the air and release the soft shot off the glass. In the Suns’ scrimmage, he had a similarly classic play, but instead of driving and hanging, he stopped on a dime and made the nice little in between 8-10 foot shot.
Hayward also displayed his classic weaving through the paint movements, his top of the key three coming off of an off-ball screen (a Brad Stevens special), and a drive into the paint from the right corner, pivot, spin, and fade away into a soft make. You could sense his confidence growing as he was able to execute these moves of his, and when Hayward has his confidence it adds another necessary flavor to the Celtics scoring attack. He becomes another problem for the defense, another guy who can go create his own shot and make stuff happen off of a closeout. When we consider that his three-point shot has been solid in these scrimmages, there’s no doubt that Hayward can continue his efficient 17+ PPG when the real games get underway.
Marcus Smart was a third key guy for the C’s who played with a lot of poise and made things look easy through the first couple of scrimmages. Despite not being able to connect from three against the Thunder, he still made his presence felt. He made a nice, controlled floater, had a couple of steals, and made some good passes. With the knee injury concerns of Kemba Walker, it was comforting to see that Smart could handle some true point guard responsibilities, which included these two plays:
In the first play, he does a good job shielding the ball away from the pestering Dennis Schroder before drawing the second defender and dumping it down to Theis. Then in the second clip, he protects the ball from the long reach of Mikal Bridges, then busts out a crossover-between-the-legs combo that we haven’t really seen from him before right into the nice floater over the big man.
In addition to showing off a hesitation move in the pick and roll and driving and finishing on Devin Booker, and soon after making a pull-back move for a made midrange shot on Booker, Smart was up to some of his same old tricks: After committing two turnovers to start the second quarter of the Suns scrimmage, he got the ball on the left side of the perimeter and ripped through into the arms of the defender on the way by to draw the foul call and thus manufacture some rhythm for him. Then, to start the second half, he posted up a smaller defender down low to force the defender to foul instead of give up the easy two. (Again, another thing that Stevens loves to do.)
Neutrals: Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, Daniel Theis
I’m not going to spend as much time giving the rundowns on these guys because they didn’t play as well as the three guys already mentioned. With Tatum, look, we know that he’s good at basketball. So I’m going to chalk up his mostly uninspiring play so far to rust. For the most part, he was settling for jumpers or, when he did drive, he either lost the handle or went up kind of unbalanced and awkward. At times it was apparent that he was out of rhythm and wanted to manufacture it back, but did so by making it a point to initiate contact as he went up which resulted in off-balanced shots that missed.
However, Tatum did have his good moments. Defensively, he got some steals and made a block on Devin Booker. Against the Thunder, he had the awareness to set a screen and also seal off the smaller Schroder in one motion, then demanding the ball in the mid-post. That was a subtle, yet high IQ play. Against the Thunder, he had the ball with the shot clock running down, and, instead of taking what would of been a fadeaway, contested midrange shot on the baseline over two defenders, threw it out to Jaylen who made the three-pointer in rhythm. But the best stretch of basketball for Jayson was towards the end of the first quarter against the Suns. Stevens subbed him back in and Tatum got to work. With the Suns in a sort of hybrid zone set up, Tatum hit Cam Johnson with a nasty jab step and step back and drilled the three-pointer from the left-wing. On the very next possession, he backs up to almost half-court like what Hayward does, came off the screen, put the smaller defender on his hip, and stepped back to the left to hit the midrange shot. Feeling it at this point, he sized up Mikal Bridges and tried putting the moves on him; however, Bridges made him pick up his dribble and pass out. Tatum demanded the ball back and hit a filthy step back in his mouth, very reminiscent of a sequence earlier this season on Juancho Hernagomez, (1:19 to 1:37):
Tatum tried his famous side step to the left into a three from the top of the key on the next possession, but wasn’t tight with the handle, causing the miss. Despite the shot being off and the finishing package being awkward and unbalanced, I expect Jayson to get his swagger back sooner rather than later.
Kemba has seen his load being managed down in the bubble. To be frank, it’s quite concerning that his knee is still not 100% despite having four months to heal. So, he missed the Thunder scrimmage and played just a little bit in the Suns scrimmage. In those few minutes that he did see action, he looked pretty good. He was bouncy, springy, had that pep in his step. He was able to do his get-super-low-and-small to get under ball screens and set up his shot. He blew past Ayton. He came off a double screen at the top of the key and calmly knocked down the open three, another favorite go-to play for Stevens. He moved well to stay in front of Rubio while he was bringing it up the floor against him one time. Overall, however, I’d like to see more minutes from him on Tuesday against the Rockets to feel comfortable about his play and his knee heading into the seeding games.
Lastly, we have Daniel Theis. I really don’t have anything too bad to say about him; he’s just been solid all season. He was fine in the Thunder scrimmage, but he was noticeably giving up size to Steven Adams who took advantage of it all first half. He was fine once again against the Suns, with his main highlight coming in the form of a thunderous flush in the pick and roll. Theis continues to be very good in his role.
Secondary Rotational Players
Positives: Enes Kanter, Semi Ojeleye
Kanter put up efficient work against the Thunder, efficient enough to earn himself player of the game for NBC Sports Boston. Utilizing his instincts for offensive rebounds, soft hands, and sneakily elite footwork, Kanter put up a casual double double. Granted, it was against OKC’s second unit, but it was still nice too see. He did, however, over hedge on CP3 one time, allowing a wide open three for Mike Muscala. He was quieter against the Suns, but still managed to set good screens for Smart and work around the basket a little bit.
Semi looked on brand for himself. Defensively he was his usual compact self, he lunged for offensive tips off of rebounds, and he knocked down some open threes. He even took a momentum changing charge and made a floater against OKC. Only once did he do something that rubbed me the wrong way: With just over eight minutes left in the second quarter against the Suns, he received a handoff from Theis, got switched onto by Ayton, sort of sized him up but was easily telegraphing that he was going to shoot a three, took a few steps back and did a small side step to the left and missed the the three long. It was so obvious that he was one, going to take the shot, and two, going to miss the shot. It looked like something that he had loosely worked on during this time off, but clearly didn’t have mastered. It looked both stiff and forced. Now, it was only a scrimmage so it’s not the end of the world that he tried that, but I hope that he doesn’t pull something like that starting on Friday for the rest of the 2020 season. Just not a good use of a possession.
Neutrals: Grant Williams
Not a whole lot to say about Grant. He couldn’t quite stay with Schroder on one defensive possession, but knocked down a three from the right wing area, the spot that Steven Adams bricked on to begin the scrimmage on Friday. Against the Suns, he made good defensive plays by putting a hand up to contest an Ayton shot down low, stuck with Booker on the perimeter one time, and just swallowed up poor Dario Saric another time. Grant’s lateral defense is his calling card, but offensively he’s still a guy that you kind of cringe at whenever he attempts a shot.
Negatives: Brad Wanamaker
Ugh. Sigh. I was by some accounts a Wanamaker apologist during the course of the normal season. He’s not that bad. He does fine for his role. You could do worse for a backup point guard. Well, despite his respectable amount of made jumpers over the course of the two scrimmages, my faith in him as a quality backup PG has gone down. He’s indecisive way too many times in the pick and roll. A couple of times, when isolated, he thought it was a good idea to take a dribble or two right into a contested long two that he, in fact, bricked both times. With about 8:30 left in the second quarter against the Thunder, he easily could have driven right into the paint or passed to a wide-open Tatum at the top of the key while OKC was scrambling around, but instead hesitated and dribbled right into Chris Paul. Similarly, he dribbled right into Ricky Rubio for the charge against the Suns. With question marks surrounding the health of Kemba, I’m very shaky with the idea of having Wanamaker playing 15-20 minutes in a high leverage game.
Positives: Tremont Waters, Javonte Green
I love watching Tremont Waters play basketball. He never makes a bad decision. He’s always under control. Great poise. Ball-on-a-string. The whole deal. In my notes for the OKC scrimmage, I literally wrote “what a smooth quick dart pass,” “dart pass,” “another beautiful pass, this time a wrap around whip to the corner,” and “oh pretty baseline pass.” He also made a pair of layups and a three. Against the Suns, per my notes, again: “Elite, full-on cross-court pass to the corner from standing position,” “good backdoor pass,” “dime down to Grant,” and “another crafty backdoor pass.” At this point in time, I’d rather have Waters playing the Wanamaker minutes more often than not.
Javonte is arguably in the “secondary rotational player” tier, but whatever. A couple of highlights for him so far include a stretched out pretty reverse layup against the Thunder and a hustle to get back in a transition against the Suns. He continues to be a good slasher and a very good attacker driving right, going downhill.
Neutrals: Robert Williams, Romeo Langford, Carsen Edwards
Let’s keep this short and sweet. The Timelord contesting shots with his insane wingspan is something I weirdly enjoy seeing. Let’s have more of that. Romeo’s aggressiveness was encouraging. And Carsen was able to make some shots but still forces the issue in transition sometimes.
Negatives: Vincent Poirier
Nah. I almost feel bad for the guy. If anything, let’s see Tacko out there.
The home court gimmicks were fun. I like that they played “Shipping up to Boston” prior to the tip just like a normal home game, and displayed Celtics animations and clips of fans on the video screens in the backdrop. It was good to listen to Mike Gorman and Scal again. Scal even had a Raef LaFrentz namedrop, which was cool to me because Raef LaFrentz has been a random name that I’ve liked to say to myself for the last month or so. Lastly, the defense, including the transition defense was not good. I’m not too worried, though. In Brad we trust.